NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Even after criminal charges were filed against student activists pushing for a higher minimum wage at Rutgers University, their "Fight for 15" campaign continues.
In the lead-up to the Rutgers Board of Trustees' meeting on December 12, University President Robert Barchi announced he would increase the wage for student workers to $11 an hour effective January 1.
Previously, some student workers at the university earned wages as low as $8.44 an hour, the state's current minimum wage.
The raise impacts more than 13,000 students who work in dining halls, offices, libraries and other facilities on the New Brunswick, Newark and Camden campuses.
But activists with the Rutgers chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which supports raising the wage for all workers—not just college students—to $15 per hour, went ahead with their planned protest, effectively shutting down the board's scheduled meeting at the Douglass Campus Center.
A large number of Rutgers University Police were present and the advocates with the campaign were informed there would be no tolerance for disruptive behavior by Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Felicia McGinty.
But once the meeting began, the protesters began to sing the union anthem, "Solidarity Forever," as roughly half of the group’s members bypassed the line of police separating them from the 42-member board, and refusing to leave until the meeting was adjourned.
At least one officer could be heard saying, "You're under arrest," as the protest unfolded, but no one was handcuffed or taken into custody.
It took about 15 minutes of loud and proud protesting in the center of the room before the meeting was called off, as the board members and administrators left the scene.
In the aftermath of the action, twelve of the participants were charged with violating two criminal statutes:
- 2C:33-8, which makes it a disorderly persons offense to "prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession or gathering [by doing] an act tending to obstruct or interfere with it physically"
- 2C:33-2A(1), which makes it a petty disorderly persons offense to "with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof… [create] a hazardous or physically dangerous condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose of the actor"
Eleven of the twelve students facing charges were summoned to appear before the New Brunswick Municipal Court on the morning of January 22.
Attorney Ira W. Mintz of the law firm Weissman & Mintz represented the students during the brief court appearance. It was not immediately clear who is representing the twelfth defendant.
Rutgers has also accused the students of violating their student code of conduct, a policy changed by the school's Board of Governors last April to expand its prohibition on "disruptions" against the wishes of activists and union leaders.
But even the charges leveled by university police and school officials haven't stopped the tenacious activism of the USAS organizers, who frequently make use of the cautionary chant: “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
On Janury 29, just one week after the activists first appeared in court, five banners advocating for the Fight for 15 campaign appeared around New Brunswick, one of which highlighted that President Barchi makes roughly $325 per hour, a figure based on his $676,260 salary and a 40-hour work week.
Rutgers' chapter of USAS is continuing to advocate on the issue with a planned February 23 march, adverstised as “$15/hr on Campus: We won 11, Now we March for 15” and set to being at 1 p.m. at Brower Commons, the main dining hall on College Avenue in New Brunswick.
"Action coordinators expect more than 500 people to be in attendance, many from our partnered community organizations," reads a press release from the organization.
Rutgers senior Daniel Taylor, one of the twelve USAS members who received a summons, said the recent increase to $11 an hour is already affecting the morale of campus workers.
"There’s a real change in people’s attitudes," said Taylor, who works at Neilson Dining Hall. "When you think, I worked six hours and make almost $60, that’s a lot better than working six hours and making around $40."
"We think this could be the year Rutgers pays its workers a living wage."
There is also hope that the state government will raise the minimum wage for all workers in New Jersey.
While ex-Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would raise the minimum hourly wage to $15, new Governor Phil Murphy has vocalized support of raising the minimum wage during his term in office.
Students like Taylor are planning to hold Murphy and others in power accountable.
“Last October I had the opportunity to meet with Phil Murphy… When I asked if he supported the [Fight for 15] campaign then, he said that he did,” Taylor said, adding that nothing has come of it yet. "We hope he would support grassroots organizing in the state."
"Our objective of a living wage for all campus workers comes with a sense of urgency, both morally and practically," explained Taylor. "It’s a combination of work among activists, students, unions and workers all fighting in solidarity."
The growth of student unions and groups like USAS is helping college students to build power and mobilize as a force in social struggles across the country.
The University of California is one public school system where student activism successfully led institutions of higher education to pay their workers at least $15 an hour.
The wage hike there, which affected all of its workers, was phased in over three years, reaching $15 per hour in October 2017.